Hagios—this Greek word means “set apart” or “different.” It’s also the word for “saint.” And what could be a more appropriate word? Many saints are “different.” Many, if not most, have set themselves apart from the world. Picture Francis standing naked in the main piazza of Assisi, vowing to live in poverty. Picture John of the Cross, imprisoned by his own Carmelite brothers for trying to reform their order. Yes, saints truly are “set apart” for the Lord.
But what about a saint who wasn’t just set apart, but who didn’t fit in even with traditional views of holiness? What about a saint who was rejected by numerous monasteries numerous times? What about a saint who stank so badly his confessor insisted that they not meet in the close quarters of the confessional? And what about a saint who lived the last thirteen years of his life as a homeless man in tattered clothes?
That was St. Benedict Joseph Labre.
“I Shall Not Remain in the World.” Labre was born on March 26, 1748, the eldest of fifteen children, to devout parents in a small town in northwestern France. As he grew, it was clear that Benedict was strongly interested in his faith. On one level, that wasn’t too surprising—he had six uncles who were priests. And yet the seriousness and single-mindedness with which he pursued his faith were unusual. For instance, at just seven years old, Benedict decided to practice self-denial by insisting that he sit as far as possible from the fire on cold evenings.
Young Benedict Joseph prayed often, fasted rigorously, loved to serve at Mass, and strove to set a good example in all he did. His parents were sure he would become a priest. His uncle and godfather, Fr. François-Joseph Labre, agreed, so he offered to take Benedict in so the boy could learn and train with him.
At his uncle’s, Benedict began reading the sermons of a seventeenth-century author who emphasized the need for austere penances and the difficulty of attaining salvation. Benedict took an instant liking to these works, and he set his sights on becoming a Trappist monk. He wanted to live as demanding a religious life as possible. He told his uncle, “I shall not remain in the world. All I want is to go away into a desert.” Both the priest and his parents tried to dissuade him. They were concerned that his narrow fixation on penance and strict spiritual practices was unhealthy. But Benedict was determined, so he left, never to return home again.
Benedict never fulfilled his dream. He made several attempts to enter the Trappists and the Carthusians, but with little success. Some monasteries rejected him immediately as too young or too weak from all his fasts. And if he was accepted somewhere, it wasn’t long before he showed signs of an overactive conscience. He even believed himself guilty of sins he had never committed. During his final stay at a Trappist monastery, Benedict was so wracked with guilt that the other monks feared for his sanity. Just like the others, they also asked him to leave.
Wandering but Not Lost. Most young men would have gotten the message after two or three rejections, but not Benedict. It was as if he could not even conceive of a different life. In fact, it was this laserlike, unbending, seemingly illogical approach that many observers point to as evidence that he had some degree of autism. Psychologists often characterize autistic individuals as being rigid, black-and-white thinkers with what can appear to be a one-track mind. And Benedict was nothing if not one-track! His fixation on his past sins—both real and imagined—has also led to the conjecture that he suffered from depression.
Eventually, Benedict accepted that he was not called to monastic life. But he was still deeply committed to a life of prayer, poverty, and penance. So he decided to do it his own way. He would live as a monk without a monastery—homeless and as a constant pilgrim.
From 1770 to 1776, Benedict visited shrine after shrine throughout Europe, always ending up in Rome. During these years, he walked an estimated twenty thousand miles: to Assisi, Loreto, Naples, Provence, Auvergne, and many other places. He even hiked the demanding Camino to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. And he almost always traveled alone. He would speak to no one unless necessary. He never begged for food and took only what people freely offered him. Even then, he often gave away what little he had received. He always wore the same coat, along with a tattered three-cornered hat and shoes that were falling apart.
Benedict rarely bathed—he thought himself unworthy of such a luxury—so he often became infested with lice and fleas. He accepted this condition as an act of penance for his sins and the sins of the world. He was always painfully aware of how he looked and smelled. When he joined other pilgrims who had come to a holy site, he would stand apart so as not to offend them and would ring a little bell to warn people away.
An Unexpected Encounter. We might consider all of this excessive, but it was the way Benedict had chosen, and there was no convincing him of any other options.
Whatever Benedict’s eccentricities, it appears that the Lord honored his devotion. For despite his off-putting appearance, his strong odor, and his rigid manner, many people encountered Christ through him.
In Fabriano, Italy, for example, Benedict consoled a young girl who was in great distress over an incurable illness. After he left her, she was smiling brightly. The girl’s sisters said that Benedict’s every word “seemed to bring comfort from heaven.”
Another time, while visiting Bari, Benedict took pity on inmates in the prison there. He began to chant the Litany of Our Lady in the street, and the townspeople gave him alms—which he promptly gave to the prisoners.
In the town of Moulins, a priest took a dislike to him because he was constantly praying in his church. Supposing him a fanatic, the priest tried to get Benedict thrown out of his lodgings, despite the fact that Benedict had performed two miracles there. First he multiplied the meager amount of food he had offered to twelve homeless men, and then he healed a local tailor.
Stories like these abound. It seemed that wherever Benedict Joseph Labre went, he brought the presence of Christ to any who would spend time with him.
In 1777, Benedict came to Rome for the sixth time and decided to stay there. For three years he slept outside near the Colosseum. He would come out in the middle of the night to pray the Stations of the Cross, kneeling on the cold, hard ground despite the sores that had already developed on his knees. At daylight, he would make his way to various churches and pray, either kneeling or standing—usually motionless, and often with outstretched arms—for hours.
Everyone in Rome recognized him—it would be hard not to! And opinion was divided. He was either a saint or just another vagabond. Very few thought it was possible he could be both. Those who thought him a saint revered him, and those who didn’t either ignored him or mocked and beat him. For his part, Benedict thanked his detractors for reminding him of his sin, and he reminded his admirers of how sinful he thought he was.
A Homeless Man Goes Home. Benedict seemed to have a sense that he would soon be departing this life. In early April 1783, he told a friend, “Pray for me . . . We shall not meet again.” On April 16, Wednesday of Holy Week, Benedict went to church at Santa Maria dei Monti. After hearing the passion narrative, he went outside and collapsed on the steps. A local butcher brought Benedict to his house, where he died.
The news of his death spread quickly throughout Rome. People could be heard shouting, “The saint is dead! The saint is dead!” Benedict’s body lay inside the church for three days, and he was buried on Easter Sunday. The crowds were so great that soldiers were called in to keep order.
Reports of miraculous healings began circulating and started to multiply. Only three months after his death, 136 cures had already been reported, many having taken place right at his tomb.
A Saint for Those Who Don’t Fit In. To the people of Rome, Benedict Joseph Labre was already a saint, but it wasn’t until 1881 that he was officially canonized. In recent years, Labre’s popularity has spread far beyond his adopted city. His statue graces the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, and he has been adopted as a patron of three groups who are often made to feel as if they don’t fit in: people with autism, people with mental illness, and people who experience homelessness. In fact, Labre could be considered the patron of anyone who has ever felt they didn’t fit in.
But beyond these groups, Labre tells all of us that saints don’t just come in all shapes and sizes; they also come in all states of life. Perhaps that’s his most important lesson: there are no “cookie-cutter” saints. God can use any of us, no matter how “imperfect” or “broken” we may think we are.
Bob French writes from Silver Spring, Maryland.